Martin McDonagh's first playwriting effort, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is tragedy, comedy and Hitchcockian thriller rolled into one

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If you knew nothing about Martin McDonagh's drama The Beauty Queen of Leenane except that it is the tale of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship set amid Irish small-town bleakness, you might be forgiven for remaining unenthused. But when you discovered that this is also a story of madness, with shocking surprises and Hitchcockian plot twists, you would find your curiosity rewarded with juicy action and not a small taste of horror.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis tackles Beauty Queen through a month of performances beginning Jan. 5. The play, which won a slew of awards after its 1998 importation from Britain to Broadway, was written by McDonagh at age 23. The celebrated story goes that he was reading a book with advice on writing for various media, and Beauty Queen was his freshman effort after reading the chapter on drama. The buzz around the very young English playwright of Irish descent and his first effort grew steadily. He went on to add Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West to complete his "Connemara Trilogy" and eventually produced an "Aran Island Trilogy" as well, all marked by dry Irish humor, relatives viciously attacking one another in word and deed, and a steady stream of despair.

Beauty Queen drops us into a running war of words between aged Mag and her middle-aged daughter, Maureen. Mag seems to need Maureen to fix her porridge, tidy up after her and perform the sorts of tasks one must to care for a housebound invalid. But just how helpless is Mag? Gradually we see that she can fix her own food and such but that she prefers the constant service of her daughter. Maureen lays into the woman with nearly every spoken sentence, resenting being in a servile position to her selfish hag of a mom. So from Maureen we get "You're oul and you're stupid and you don't know what you're talking about. Now shut up and eat your oul porridge." And from Mag we get a sample barrage when she tells lonely Maureen that no man will be falling in love with her anytime soon and then throws Maureen's party dress into a dingy corner. Pauline Flanagan, taking the role of Mag, says, "She's a hideous little lady, totally about herself and her needs. Her whole raison d' ê tre is to have someone take care of her. They each know how to push one another's buttons very well and can do it with ease." The back-and-forth bitch-slap of barbs really becomes (unintentionally) campy at points, à la Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Through plenty of foreshadowing and then a number of wicked turns, this war of the Judds grows much more intriguing. Mag seems to delight in trying to deny Maureen the rare opportunities for meeting men that come along, and Maureen, who has within her the capacity for all sorts of deviltry, raises Cain when mother gets daughter's Irish up.

Veteran stage and film actress Flanagan happens to be a native of Sligo County, Ireland. "She's the first lady of the Irish theatre," says director Jack Going of the thespian, who has played Mag in a previous production of the play, and he calls Flanagan's authentic accent "a wonderful reference for all of us." Going has directed Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Misalliance and many other productions for the Rep.

And now, a word on the critics. Beauty Queen, despite having received all the high-and-mighty awards a Broadway play can, encountered a stinging round of criticism from the media's arbiters of dramaturgy. Some said that the drama just isn't terribly deep -- that the payoff for sitting through a full course of viciousness and horror is an insufficient helping of meaning. Others insisted that the history of mother and daughter is related in spotty fashion, so we are not equipped to understand why they must act this way toward each other. A general complaint was that it's not hard to see this piece as written by a young novice to the form, that it is indeed amateurish.

Response? This is Irish, but it is not Beckett. It is not on the order of Guare, Miller or Shepard. It is an amalgam of comedy, tragedy and terror, not meshing into a gestalt masterpiece, by any means, but meshing well. Yes, there are disturbing moments and a little gore. And that's OK. Plenty of well-told tales shock and let blood, and it is not done gratuitously here. Anger, frustration and rage, although certainly writ large in Beauty Queen, are not strangers to any of us. In the words of Giulia Pagano, who plays Maureen, "When I first read (the script) I didn't like it. I reread it and got more and more out of it. It seemed so mean and nasty and unredeeming and unremittingly mean at first, I thought, "Who needs this?' Then I read it and found it very funny. It's a black comedy." The humor is really necessary to leaven the tragedy, adds Going. "The interesting thing here is the way (McDonagh) is able to make this material funny," he says.

This is a play of action, in the same way that The Postman Always Rings Twice is a novel of action. We don't need plodding Faulknerian histories to bog down the beginning of the story. Finally, McDonagh does seem amateurish at times, but he more than compensates for it with his manipulation of the audience through suspenseful technique and perfect pacing.

Once again it must be emphasized that this is a show with surprise plot twists, which the previewer must be careful not to let slip. These unexpected developments make the overall experience of the play one that you'll remember and make Beauty Queen bloody good.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis performs The Beauty Queen of Leenane on more than 30 occasions in January and February; the play premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5, at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Rd. Call 968-4925 for tickets.

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